TAMPA, Fla. — Burnt like toast and thrown under the bus by his coach, how do the Avs ever trust goalie Darcy Kuemper again? This is a choice Jared Bednar cannot get wrong, unless Colorado wants to blow its best chance to win the Stanley Cup since 2001.
After an embarrassing 6-2 loss to Tampa Bay, Bednar stubbornly refused to admit what we’ve long known: Kuemper doesn’t have what it takes to be a championship goalie.
“He didn’t have a good night, you know?” Bednar said Monday. “Neither did our team. We win as a team, lose as a team.”
So why be wishy-washy now, Mr. Bednar?
In the aftermath of a defeat that not only gave life to the two-time defending champs, but allowed Tampa Bay to cut its deficit in this best-of-seven series to 2-1, Bednar played it coy, refusing to either give Kuemper a vote of confidence or declare Pavel Francouz is between the pipes until further notice.
Sorry, but that’s a lousy excuse for leadership.
It seems to me the choice for Game 4 should be Francouz, who is 6-0 in the playoffs when given the chance to start in Kuemper’s absence.
Hoist the Cup? Kuemper couldn’t grab a beach ball before it bounces into the Gulf of Mexico. Left exposed by a lackadaisical Colorado defense and far too passive in response to Lightning scoring chances, Kuemper stopped only 17 of 22 shots before Bednar had seen enough.
“I felt like the goals we gave up, honestly we just didn’t make them earn,” Bednar said.
With eight minutes, 45 seconds remaining in the second period, and the arena horn blaring the news of the home team’s fifth goal, Bednar made a scapegoat of Kuemper. The coach sacrificed his rattled goaltender to the taunts of 19,092 raucous Lightning fans inside Amalie Arena as he yanked Kuemper and banished him to the team bench, with Francouz grabbing his gear and scurrying into action.
If this was undeniably a total meltdown by Kuemper, it also was a flustered moment of panic by Bednar. He waited too long on making a move to Francouz to change the momentum of the game, dilly-dallying until removing Kuemper seemed more like punishment instead of an act of mercy.
Lightning never strikes twice? How about four times… in less than a 15-minute span of the second period, when everything that we presumed about this championship series got tossed in Tampa Bay?
“Listen, he’s allowed to have a bad night, too,” Avs captain Gabe Landeskog said, displaying empathy for Kuemper.
Lost in the deluge of Tampa Bay goals was a not-so-minor detail worth mentioning. Only five minutes into the first period, Valeri Nichushkin appeared to give the Avs a 1-0 lead.
But before play could resume at center ice, Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper called for a video review, believing Bo Byram had mishandled the puck ever so slightly, letting it dribble an inch outside the blue line, forcing the play offsides.
The score was wiped off the board after an excruciatingly long video review that lasted well over three minutes. “It was long. Don’t know what else to say,” Bednar noted. “It was three times as long as we usually get.”
But as Colorado forward Mikko Rantanen wisely observed, you can’t pressure officials to get on with the game if your team isn’t lined up at center ice. “I don’t think the (linesman) can drop the puck if nobody is there,” Rantanen said. “I guess you can, but it’s never happened before… Good job by (the Lightning) just waiting to make sure it was offsides. Good for them.”
While praised for his calm demeanor, demanding a decision on replay is where Bednar should’ve raised cane. Patrick Roy or Marc Crawford would’ve gone nuts. In this case, Bednar’s inexperience on hockey’s biggest stage might have shown. In addition to the Lightning’s desperation, the playoff savvy of Cooper proved crucial in a must-win situation.
“We knew they were too proud to go away,” said Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon, who has been limited to only two assists by the Lightning through three games of the Stanley Cup Final.
While he hasn’t been bad, MacKinnon certainly hasn’t driven the bus. So this isn’t all on Kuemper. It’s time for MacKinnon to step up.
Hold those victory parade plans. As sure as Colorado forward Logan O’Connor was throwing haymakers at Ross Colton out of frustration in the waning moments of this route, the Avs are embroiled in a battle royale now.
We know the Bolts will live and die with Andrei Vasilevskiy, the premier goalie on the planet.
And what do the Avs between the pipes?
Consternation. Mediocrity. And uncertainty.
So will it be Kuemper or Francouz?
Your move, coach.
It’s the most crucial decision of Bednar’s coaching career.
Nothing less than the Stanley Cup depends on Bednar’s choice.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism